1. Lean into empathy first
Start every leadership communication, big or small, by empathizing with the other person(s) and asking human-to-human how are they doing? Share how you are coping too. Communicate that we are all in this together and that your thoughts are with your employees and their loved ones who are suffering or anxious. Next comes pragmatism, and setting the tone that important work must go on. Discuss work progress, plans and priorities. Always wrap up discussions and meetings with a message of optimism/hope e.g. ‘We are resourceful and we will get through this’.
2. Set the standard, be a role model
Leaders need to be out-front and hosting regular weekly virtual check-ins with their team and direct reports. Starting your week with an interactive conversation gives impetus to the work week ahead. This keeps you and your remote workers motivated, helps reset priorities during the evolving crisis – and offers a systematic way of holding two-way communications. Team members should be encouraged to do the same with each of their teams in a cascading effect. This keeps the information flowing and signals that there is an expectation of productive work by end of the week. This structured approach will help employees feel more connected and motivated because they will feel that someone is paying attention and that their work effort really matters. Make sure that your remote meetings are effective and efficient. For example, send the agenda ahead of time, don’t have too many people on the call, keep meetings professional and focused.
3. Be realistic and reset performance expectations
It is a mistake to think that it is business as usual for employees working from home. Employee stress and burnout should be a concern as workers grapple with the healthcare implications of COVID-19 on loved ones, and their requirement to work from home while other members of the family have to be home-schooled and their other partner is also working from home. My advice is for employers and leaders to alleviate an already pressurized situation and reset employee performance expectations. Establish a new expectation that 60% work rate is good enough, and 80% is great. No one should be expected to be superhuman and deliver the same 100% rate of output during the anxiety of a global pandemic and country lockdown. Don’t see this as a dropping of standards. Instead see it as a realistic and appropriate compromise between employer and employee during what is a very heightened stress period.
4. Establish an ‘open door’ policy to hear employee feedback
Leaders should communicate that they have a virtual ‘open office door’ policy and are willing to take calls as and when people would like to get in touch during the working day. Remote working is a communication barrier, and leaders need to find creative ways to dismantle this barrier so that it does not get in the way of work performance. Rather than ignore the reality of the challenges of staying connected during the COVID-19 crisis, you should acknowledge it, and actively encourage people to get in touch with you to provide feedback on what is working well and not well. The alternative to pro-actively reaching out is not an attractive outcome. Team members may become demotivated, disengaged or burnout because their boss or employer did not properly empathize with the reality of remote working in the extraordinary pressure of a global pandemic crisis. You need your people to bounce-back from this experience, even more appreciative of their boss and employer.
5. Be emotionally intelligent
Good leaders should be able to use their emotional intelligence to tune into the emotional mood and health of the organization and respond accordingly. Treat your employees like grown-ups. There is no hiding in a crisis like COVID-19. Share the available facts. Be transparent. Bring people on the journey. Explain the challenges; explain what you are doing about the challenges. Build a mutual appreciation of the efforts involved. In times of crisis, people look to the leaders for answers. They will appreciate disclosure. Have empathy for yourself too. Although people are looking to their leaders for all the answers, remember you are just a human too. Remember to have empathy for yourself and put in the support systems you need to function. Take care of yourself as well as taking care of your people.
By Niamh O’Keeffe, corporate leadership advisor and author of ‘Future Shaper: how leaders can take charge in an uncertain world’ (published 2020) firstname.lastname@example.org